I recently attended a session on the doctrine of the Trinity. As we walked out of the classroom, one student, confused and frustrated, said, “Can anyone tell me what ‘person’ means?” The doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly one of the most challenging doctrines for Christians. The dense concepts of the doctrine such as diversity-in-unity and unity-in-diversity or the classical language of Greek ontology (e.g., ousia and hypostasis) present challenges to many Christians who want to understand this doctrine. As a result, the doctrine of the Trinity has often been eclipsed by the doctrine of God. Indeed, the doctrine was perceived as illogical and useless, especially during the 19th century. Yet, the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity is immense because it is the basis of our Christian belief and has implications for all other doctrines of Christianity.
The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) by Stephen R. Holmes is a timely and helpful resource. Holmes’s approach to this important issue is unique and goes against modern trends in Trinitarian studies. One might have expected that Holmes would argue how the modern Trinitarian doctrine has overtaken the accounts of the earlier tradition (e.g., person over substance, communion over monarchy) or praise the implications that modern trinitarian theologians draw out of the doctrine (e.g., the Trinity as a model of human society, the Trinity as a model of ecclesiology, etc.). In much of contemporary writing on the Trinity, the focal point is modern trinitarian theology rather than the tradition.
But Holmes takes the opposite position and contends that modern trinitarian theology fails to be consonant with the tradition. He argues, “I see the twentieth-century renewal of Trinitarian theology as depending in large part on concepts and ideas that cannot be found in patristic, medieval, or Reformation accounts of the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 2). To support his claim, in chapter 1, Holmes introduces several modern trinitarian theologians and examines their ideas about the Trinity, starting with Karl Barth. In so doing, he delineates how the doctrine has become detached from the traditions (e.g., in the concept of personhood, the relation of God to the creation, etc.). In chapter 2, Holmes examines the Bible and argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is supported by scriptural evidence.
From chapter 3 to chapter 7, Holmes provides historical presentations of the development of the doctrine. In chapter 3, Holmes focuses on early patristic developments in the doctrine and examines the ideas presented by Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian. In chapters 3 and 4, Holmes examines the debates in the fourth century concerning the divine essence and nature. In chapter 5, Holmes dedicates nearly the entire chapter to Augustine. Augustine is perhaps the anchor of Holmes’s trinitarian theology. Holmes closely examines De Trinitate to explore Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, while attempting to defend him against charges brought by recent scholars (e.g., the late Colin E. Gunton and Robert Jensen) on the ousia-hypostasis distinction and vestigial trinitatis. In chapter 7, Holmes surveys the medieval doctrine of the Trinity on issues of how to understand unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity among the persons of the Trinity.
Chapters 8 and 9 record developments in anti-Trinitarianism. In the sixteenth century, a small group of Christians began to question the doctrine of the Trinity. By the beginning of the 19th century this view had become widespread. As a result, the doctrine was considered useless orthodoxy: “Persons and nature [were] no longer meaningful or useful terms” (p. 190). Hence, the “doctrine of the Trinity stands in need of re-narration” (p. 190).
Yet this “re-narration” has appeared in modern views of the Trinity in which God is no longer metaphysical, but moral and personal. Neither is God immutable; on the contrary, this personal God acts toward the creation for the ultimate goodness of the world. Yet, Holmes finds this modern movement of a personal God troubling because the modern concept of person clearly shows diversion from the traditional teaching of the Trinity. He states, “The practice of speaking of three ‘persons’ in this sense in the divine life, of asserting a ‘social doctrine of the Trinity,’ a ‘divine community’ or an ontology of persons in relationship’ can only ever be, as far as I can see, a simple departure from the unified witness of the entire theological tradition” (p. 195). Thereby, Holmes concludes that modern trinitarian theology fails to remain in the tradition.
I appreciate Holmes’s viewpoint very much, and I share some of his concerns (e.g., over divine simplicity, the divine essence, and personality). Yet, I am not sure if I am ready to write off what modern trinitarian theology has accomplished since Barth. The bottom line of the debate in this book seems to me, after all, the same familiar debate over ousia vs. hypostasis. Holmes is a Western theologian. Just as the Western church formulates the Trinity with an emphasis on God’s essence (ousia), Holmes’s theology starts with essence. But this view seems lacking in light of God’s subsistence as three persons, being in communion. To be a person is to be more than an “individual intelligent substance” (p. 195). As the late Colin Gunton argued, God is a being in communion; therefore, He is relational. And this God has relation to His created world through the two hands of the Father, namely the Son and the Spirit. If so, it is imperative to understand this personal aspect of the trinitarian God. The task that is given to modern theologians, as Holmes also argues, is to develop the concept of person while remaining faithful to the tradition. For a thought-provoking treatment of the Trinity that challenges the status quo, I highly recommend this book.
— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.